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Mental health – lifting the taboo and saving lives

It’s a well-known fact that suicide rates amongst veterinary professionals runs at nearly four times the rate found within the general population. As such, mental health is not a subject that can be ignored. Mental well-being as is key to a person’s ability to function, perform and to find fulfilment in their work. Mental health has long been a taboo subject, but with it adversely affecting such a significant portion of the veterinary profession, such taboos are ill-afforded.

The World Health Organisation has declared depression as the leading cause of disability, and that by 2030, depression will be the leading cause of the global burden of disease worldwide. The burden of depression is 50{bda523e6e08aa325f5e8a237b52f61aaf9fd649a67da6117555a453fed867590} higher for females than males. Taken into account, together with the fact that, of registered vets practising in the UK, 57{bda523e6e08aa325f5e8a237b52f61aaf9fd649a67da6117555a453fed867590} are female, and 43{bda523e6e08aa325f5e8a237b52f61aaf9fd649a67da6117555a453fed867590} are male (Vet Futures, 2014) and that this trend is set to continue; just 24{bda523e6e08aa325f5e8a237b52f61aaf9fd649a67da6117555a453fed867590} of vet students starting degrees in 2012 were male (RCVS, 2014), on the face of it, the veterinary profession could be considered to be a hotbed of mental ill health.

Contributary factors

There are a variety of contributory factors for the general ill-mental health trend amongst vets: the intensity and the volume of work together with long working hours, the sense of responsibility, financial concerns, quality of workplace relationships, and career prospects. Most vets have a strong work ethic, and degree courses tend to emphasise animal welfare as having a higher priority than their own. There is also the pressure, the burden of responsibility. A recent survey by ICM of 2000 members of the general public revealed that 94{bda523e6e08aa325f5e8a237b52f61aaf9fd649a67da6117555a453fed867590} of the population trusts the vet profession generally or completely. For newly qualified vets, it’s understandable that performance anxiety is a major strain as they feel they must always appear knowledgeable and in control. For more seasoned vets, compassion fatigue is a major concern, arising as a result of dealing with ethical dilemmas, animal cruelty, death, and pet owners in mourning.

Compassion fatigue has been described as – “A state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped, to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.” Dr Charles Figley

“Over time, your ability to feel and care for others becomes eroded through overuse of your skills of compassion.” Dr Frank M. Ochberg – psychiatrist and pioneer in trauma science.

What can be done?

So, what can be done to alleviate the burden on the mental well-being of vets? Being able to recognise the signs of depression in yourself as well as in others is key. A poll conducted by Vet Futures in January 2017 asked whether registered veterinary professionals would be able to recognise the signs of mental ill-health in a colleague. 58{bda523e6e08aa325f5e8a237b52f61aaf9fd649a67da6117555a453fed867590} said yes, 42{bda523e6e08aa325f5e8a237b52f61aaf9fd649a67da6117555a453fed867590} said no. Clearly, there is more to be done in educating vet professionals in this area, however, when asked, 75.5{bda523e6e08aa325f5e8a237b52f61aaf9fd649a67da6117555a453fed867590} of vet students said they wouldn’t want anyone to know if they were suffering from a mental health problem. This is compared to 41{bda523e6e08aa325f5e8a237b52f61aaf9fd649a67da6117555a453fed867590} of the general population. Spotting warning signals then is likely to be trickier in vets determined to hide their situation from colleagues and friends. Worryingly, 38.7{bda523e6e08aa325f5e8a237b52f61aaf9fd649a67da6117555a453fed867590} of vet students have experienced suicidal thoughts. Clearly then, the issue of resilience must be addressed at the degree level. Indeed, better vet well-being was the top goal for 2030 in RCVS survey of vet students and recent graduates. The most popular suggestion for improving vet education was to have compulsory modules on managing stress, personal development and work-life balance. In the same survey, stress reduction was the top for vets in Small Animal practice, particularly in younger vets (under 35). Unsurprisingly, given the top-heavy female leaning of the industry, women were found to be more likely to prioritise this.

So, as a vet professional, what can you do to maintain or regain your mental health balance?

Prevention is better than cure. Designing and sticking to a plan for selfcare that includes regular exercise, proper nutrition and a healthy sleep routine is a must. Managing expectations is key too, whether they are the expectations you place on yourself or the pressure from outside influences. Recognise when experiencing feelings of perfectionism, as this is a slippery downward slope. Manage debt, rather than bury your head in the sand. Speak to advisors who can help you get your finances organised. Develop mindfulness practices and incorporate them into your daily routine.

Be aware of your employment rights: The Equality Act only protects people who have disclosed their mental health issue to their employer. If you find your mental health is suffering, share how you feel with the Practice Manager or with the HR Manager, if you have one. Explain the issues causing you distress and describe how they are affecting your day to day duties. Together, design a plan for coping and for recovery. Make the plan as specific as possible and incorporate it into your routine.

Good news

The good news is the British Veterinary Association, and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons have recognised the issue surrounding mental health of veterinary professionals and are taking steps to put support measures in place. They are also attempting to lift the taboo nature of mental health. In February this year, David Bartram, a member of the RCVS Governing Council spoke out about his own, multiple suicide attempts at a launch of the joint initiative between vets and doctors, called “&me”. This campaign is designed to tackle the stigma of mental health, and the message is clear: ‘you’re not alone, and there is support out there for you.’

Further resources:

Vetlife Helpline offers confidential emotional support to the veterinary community. or Telephone support on 0303 040 2551


Mind Matters:


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